Online overload: we shall overcome?

Our brains are being re-wired and overloaded with every click of the mouse, according to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Our innate love of the new has found a virtual wonderland online, but the scattered nature of our movements while there could be damaging our ability to concentrate and think creatively. ‘Our gadgets have turned us into hi-tech lab rats,’ says Carr, ‘mindlessly pressing levers in the hope of receiving a pellet of social or intellectual nourishment.’

And we will happily keep foraging, despite being only too aware that the worthwhile information may well be buried amid superficiality, conjecture and adverts for Viagra. Since every nugget of new possibility delivers a helping of the pleasure chemical dopamine into our brains, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us are – quite literally – addicted to our inboxes. A recent poll on business networking site LinkedIn revealed that the vast majority of participants (227 out of 409) checked theirs 21 or more times daily, with one person commenting that he checked at least 180 times a day.

The charge of addiction is even more convincing when people are first forced to do without. A recent study found that people asked to avoid all media contact for 24 hours experienced withdrawal symptoms associated with smokers going cold turkey.

For the experiment, called ‘Unplugged’, volunteers from 12 universities worldwide had to live without access to computers, mobiles, iPods, TV, radio and newspapers for one day. Participants’ diaries revealed they felt isolated, anxious or even afraid, and overwhelmed by the deafening silence of an iPod-less existence. But, for the majority, early panic was before long replaced by coping mechanisms like going for a walk and seeing friends (the old-fashioned 3D variety). With ears freed up, they were suddenly aware of birds singing and their neighbours’ comings and goings.

And presumably such quasi-religious, Awakenings-style moments could come to us all, if we just get off the hamster wheel once in a while. But, after we’ve smelled the roses, we’ll inevitably have to switch back on again eventually. So should we just accept being re-wired?

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